The Short Story An Introduction
The Short Story • The short form is, conceivably, more natural to readers than longer forms: the anecdote that lasts several hours is going to find its listeners drifting away pretty soon. The stories we tell to each other are short, or shortish, and they are shaped.
The Short Story • Consider what happens in the telling of a tale: even the most unprofessional anecdotalist will find him or herself having to select some details and omit others, emphasise certain events and ignore the irrelevant or time-consuming, elide, speed up, slow down, describe key characters but not all, in order to head—ideally—towards a denouement of some sort.
The Short Story • A whole editing process is engaged, almost unconsciously, of choosing, clarifying, enhancing and inventing. A convincing lie is, in its own way, a tiny, perfect narrative.
The Short Story • The well-told story seems to answer something very deep in our nature as if, for the duration of its telling, something special has been created, some essence of our experience extrapolated, some temporary sense has been made of our common, turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion.
The Short Story • If all this is true then why has it taken so long for the short story, as a literary form, to evolve? After all, the cultural history of the published short story is only a few decades longer than that of film. The answer, of course, is to be found in industrial and demographic processes.
The Short Story • The short story had always existed as an informal oral tradition, but until the mass middle-class literacy of the 19th century arrived in the west, and the magazine and periodical market were invented to service the new reading public’s desires and preferences, there had been no real publishing forum for a piece of short fiction in the five to 50-page range.
The Short Story • It was this new medium that revealed to writers their capacity to write short fiction. Readers wanted short stories, and writers suddenly discovered they had a new literary form on their hands.
The Short Story • Thus the short story sprang into being in its full maturity without undergoing the different stages of development. • There were no faltering first steps, no slow centuries of evolution.
The Short Story • The fact that in the early to mid-19th century Hawthorne and Poe and Turgenev were capable of writing classic and timeless short stories virtually from the outset signals that the ability had always been dormant within the human imagination.
The Short Story • The short story arrived fully fledged in the middle of the 19th century and by its end, in the shape of Anton Chekhov, had reached its apotheosis. • So who wrote and published the first true modern short story? Who was the great precursor?
The Short Story • Short narratives and tales had existed for centuries in one form or another: Scheherazade, Boccaccio’s Decameron and the Canterbury Tales, subplots in plays and novels, satires, pamphlets, sagas, narrative poems etc.
The Short Story • But what is the first literary text we can point to, classify and declaim with confidence: “This is a modern short story”? • It has been argued that the honour goes to Walter Scott’s story “The Two Drovers,” published in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827.
The Short Story • It’s a convenient starting point, if only because the short story’s subsequent rapid development was international and Scott’s influence, huge in its day, was international also—not only inspiring George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in England, but also Balzac in France, Pushkin and Turgenev in Russia and Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne in America.
The Short Story • If one thinks of the influence these writers had in turn on Flaubert and Maupassant, Chekhov, Poe and Melville we can begin to trace the birth lines of the modern short story back to its original source.
The Short Story • The only problem is that after Scott’s start, the short story in Britain hardly existed in the mid-19th century, such was the dominance of the novel; writers in France, Russia and America seemed to take more immediately to the form and it’s not until Robert Louis Stevenson in the 1880s that we can see the modern short story beginning to emerge and flourish in Britain, with the line extending from Stevenson through Wells, James and Kipling.
The Short Story • Thus, in many ways the true beginnings of the modern short story are to be found in America with the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in 1837 as a starting point. When Edgar Allan Poe read Hawthorne, he made the first real analysis of the difference between the short story and the novel, defining a short story quite simply as a narrative that “can be read at one sitting.”
The Short Story • What Poe was trying to put his finger emphasize was the short story’s curious singularity of effect. Poe continues: “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”
The Short Story • The short story can seem larger, more resonant and memorable than the shortness of the form would appear capable of delivering. • The true, fully functioning short story should achieve a totality of effect that makes it almost impossible to encapsulate or summarise.
The Short Story • For it is in this area, that the short story and the novel divide, where the effect of reading a good short story is quite different from the effect of reading a good novel. Great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and resonance that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Poe, achieved this on occasion, but the writer who followed Poe and in whom we see this quality really functioning is Herman Melville.
The Short Story • Melville hated writing stories—he claimed to do so purely for money—but it is in Melville’s stories, such as “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener” that the modern short story comes of age, with remarkable suddenness. In Melville’s stories you can see the first real exemplars of the short story’s strange power.
The Short Story • If you understand and relish what Melville is doing in “Benito Cereno” then you can understand and relish what is happening in Stevenson’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” in Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” in Chekhov’s “House with the Mezzanine,” Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants,” Mansfield’s “Prelude,” Carver’s “Cathedral,” Nabokov’s “Spring at Fialta etc.
The Short Story • We cannot summarise or paraphrase the totality of effect of these stories, try as we might: something about them escapes or defies analysis. It is Melville who establishes the benchmark for what the short story can attain and allows us to set the standards by which all the other great writers of the form can be measured.
The Short Story • Turgenev was also publishing short stories in the 1850s but Turgenev’s great contribution was to start something that Chekhov finished. Why is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) described as the greatest short story writer ever?
The Short Story • All answers to this question will seem inadequate but, to put it very simply, the fact is that Chekhov, in his mature stories of the 1890s, revolutionised the short story by transforming narrative. Chekhov saw and understood that life is godless, random and absurd, that all history is the history of unintended consequences.
The Short Story • He knew, for instance, that being good will not spare you from awful suffering and injustice, that the slothful can flourish effortlessly and that mediocrity is the one great daemonic force. By abandoning the manipulated beginning-middle-and-end plot, by refusing to judge his characters, by not striving for a climax or seeking neat narrative resolution, Chekhov made his stories appear agonisingly, almost unbearably lifelike.
The Short Story • Chekhov represents the end of the first phase of the modern short story. From his death onward, his influence is massive: the short story becomes in the 20th century almost exclusively Chekhovian. Joyce is Chekhovian, Katherine Mansfield and Raymond Carver simply could not exist without him. Perhaps all short stories written after Chekhov are in one way or another in his debt. Only in the last 20 years or thereabouts have writers begun to emerge from his shadow, to middling effect.
The Short Story • But with Chekhov and with the advent of the 20th century, the modern short story entered its golden age. The adjective is very apt: in the early decades of the century you could become rich writing short stories, particularly in America. Magazines proliferated, readers were eager, circulation rose, fees went up and up.
The Short Story • In the 1920s, Scott Fitzgerald was paid $4,000 by the Saturday Evening Post for a single short story. You need to multiply by at least 20 to arrive at any idea of the value of the sum in today’s terms. It was about this time, also, as the short story’s popularity grew and was subjected to the pressures and influence of modernism, that the form began to metamorphose somewhat:
The Short Story • certain types of short story became distinct from each other and the form’s categories grew. • Until the beginning of the 20th century, there are two great traditions: the event-plot story and Chekhovian story.
The Short Story • The event-plot story refers to the style of plotted story that flourished pre-Chekhov—before his example of the formless story became pre-eminent. Most short stories, even today, fall into one of these two categories. From them other types emerged over the coming decades.
The Short Story • Perhaps the most dominant of these new forms is what is termed the modernist story, in which a deliberate, often baffling obscurity is made a virtue, however limpid the style in which it is written. Hemingway was the great practitioner here and after Chekhov his influence on the 20th-century short story is possibly the greatest.
The Short Story • Next is the cryptic story. In this form of story there is a meaning to be deciphered that lies beneath the apparently straightforward text. This is also known as “suppressed narrative” and is a more recent development—perhaps the first clear move away from the great Chekhovian model.
The Short Story • Mid-20th century writers like Nabokov, Calvino and Borges are representative of this mode of writing, though Rudyard Kipling, in stories such as “Mrs Bathurst” (1904) and “Mary Postgate” (1917), is an early master of suppressed narrative.
The Short Story • The mini-novel story is a variety of the event-plot, trying to do in a few pages what the novel does in hundreds. One could see Dickens’s “Christmas Specials” as early examples of this type, though many short story writers turn to it from time to time (including Chekhov).
The Short Story • The final category, is what is called the biographical story which utilizes the impedimenta of the non-fiction book i. e (footnotes, authorial asides, illustrations, quotations, font changes, statistics, textual gimmickry).
The Short Story • This is the most recent transmutation of the short story form and largely originated in America in the 1990s, where it has found particular favour with younger writers: Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, William T Vollman to name but a few.
The Short Story • In the hands of less capable writers, this mode can easily degenerate into the whimsical. The biographical story also includes stories that introduce real people into fiction or write fictive episodes of real lives.
The Short Story • This can be seen as an attempt by fiction, in a world deluged by the advertising media and 24-hour rolling news, to invade the world of the real and, as a cannibal will devour the brain of his enemy to make him stronger, to make fiction all the more powerful by blurring the line between hard facts and the invented.
The Short Story • It owes little to the Chekhovian example and is potentially the most interesting new direction the short story has recently taken. • What is interesting is that the two main styles—the event-plot and the Chekhovian—are still hugely dominant, particularly the latter. The other varieties made an appearance but there was little sign of formal experiment.